A tour of Sanya from our latest book, “Hainan: Jade Cliffs to Ocean Paradise”
With 300 days of sunshine a year, average temperatures around 25 degrees Celsius, and countless sandy beaches, Hainan isn’t known as “the Hawaii of the East” for nothing. The island is an international tourism magnet and favorite winter vacation spot for Chinese from further north, who visit in the millions every year. Bring your flip-flops, swimsuits, and sunscreen, and join the fun in the sun at some of China’s best beach resorts.
The most popular beach destination is Sanya, the southernmost city on Hainan Island and a tropical paradise of high-end hotels, waterfront resorts, and seaside fun. When you step off the plane in Sanya and make the short drive into the city, the faint aroma of salty sea breeze mixes with the inevitably fine weather, instantly creating a holiday vibe. The tropical feel pervades the medium-sized city, which has a laid-back lifestyle befitting of its equatorial climate.
The city center lies on Sanya Bay (三亚湾), which has a pleasant sandy beach with a promenade lined with palm trees and patrolled by coconut sellers offering the quintessential tourist treat to devour while you enjoy the sunset across the ocean. Visit the Coconut Dream Corridor (椰梦长廊) and sample coconut snacks while you breathe in the fresh air. In the evening, you’ll likely see groups of pensioners gathering for a singalong or dance, and in the daytime, enjoying tai chi or simply gossiping with old friends—not a bad way to spend one’s old age. Why not join in?
Sanya Bay, though nice enough, is one of the least spectacular sections of Sanya’s stunning coastline. Dadonghai (大东海), also close to the city center, is one of the most popular beaches in Sanya proper, and attracts an international crowd. You’ll hear Russian, Mandarin, the local Hainanese dialect, and English in this hodgepodge of holidaymakers. Dadonghai was where some of the first surf schools in Hainan opened, and now it’s a family fun-in-the-sun kind of resort. Lifeguards and designated swimming areas make this a safe place to enjoy the sea. The beach is packed with vendors renting jet skis, surfboards, and other sports equipment—ask around and you might be able to haggle the price down.
The smell of the ocean mingles with the aromas of restaurants and street food stalls located on the promenade, where one can dine with a sea view. Dadonghai is also famous for its nightlife. The breezy bars on the promenade come alive after dark, music and karaoke fills the night air, and revelers throw back delicious cocktails till the early hours.
If you are done relaxing on the beach, or encounter a rare day where the sun doesn’t appear, take a hike (or electric cart) up the peak at Luhuitou (鹿回头, “Deer Looking Back”) Park to the east of Dadonghai. The top provides vistas of the city and coastline, and wild macaques sometimes appear by the pathways. Luhuitou is named after a well-known legend in Hainan. The tale goes that a young hunter once tracked a deer for nine days and nights, before finally cornering the animal on the edge of a cliff. The deer was left with nowhere to run, but just as the hunter was about to shoot, it turned into a beautiful woman. The pair fell in love and settled in the area around Sanya. A statue depicting the couple and the deer is at the peak of the park.
While Dadonghai has diverse nightlife and an international feel, Yalong Bay (亚龙湾) offers the true domestic beach experience. The beautiful golden sand at Yalong, located up the coast from Sanya city, stretches on for miles, and at peak times of the year, so do the tourists. Vendors sell souvenirs and coconut water on the beach, and families frolic during school holidays. Seniors experiencing the sea for the first time mix with young university students enjoying a break from their studies. The crowd at Yalong Bay is a melting pot of all parts of Chinese society, from the betel nut-chewing locals offering boat rides, to the retirees paddling warily in the gentle surf, to groups of high school graduates goofing around on jet skis.
Bear in mind that Yalong Bay is true resort territory, with development only really exploding into life in the last two decades; there is no real town to speak of. Countless high-end hotels back onto the golden sand, with cheaper guesthouses located further from the beach, though most within walking distance of the sea. Eateries, a fairground, and a shopping mall provide land-based entertainment, while the luxury hotels have all manner of nighttime fun and activities for adults and kids alike. Embrace the tropical vibe by trying pineapple fried rice (served in a hollowed-out pineapple, no less) from one of the many snack kiosks near the beach.
Hainan, and the coast surrounding Sanya in particular, is known as the scuba diving capital of China. The waters around the island are home to over a thousand species of fish, and multiple protected coral reefs provide a habitat for all manner of marine life. Water visibility is typically excellent and the water warm all year round.
Diving centers are common all along the coastline and particularly in the main resorts. Experiences and courses are available to suit all budgets, from a few hundred yuan for a 20-minute beginner dive guided by an instructor, to days-long courses for those who seek to get their PADI diving qualification and dive solo.
If going for the beginner option, bear in mind that the hawkers and businesses at Yalong Bay and other tourism hot spots are seasoned moneymakers, so the experience may feel impersonal, with each step designed to get you in and out of the water in the fastest time so that the next group of tourists may start. The premier Chinese diving areas are located at Wuzhizhou Island (蜈支洲岛), off the coast at Haitang Bay (海棠湾). Here, the amphibious come to enjoy the uniquely calm waters and abundant coral reefs that host vast arrays of colorful fish. The island is accessible by ferry from Houhai (后海) port, between Yalong Bay and Haitang Bay.
A brisk walk or short bus ride from the beach at Yalong is the Yalong Bay Tropical Paradise Forest Park (亚龙湾热带天堂森林公园), a 1,500-hectare ecological conservation area and rainforest experience center. With ancient banyan trees and towering vines, set among mountainous peaks, the park feels a million miles away from the modern beach resorts at Yalong. Thrill seekers can test their nerve by crossing the rope bridge across a plunging canyon, or ride the zip line through the forest canopy. Those looking to learn about the ecology of the area can enjoy the orchid garden, while the Li culture museum explains the unique customs of the Li ethnic minority group native to Hainan.
The park is also where the popular Chinese rom-com If You are the One II was filmed, and has become something of a pilgrimage spot for young fans of the movie to come and snap themselves in the scenes they saw on the big screen. Romantic types, even if not familiar with the movie, can enjoy peaceful walks along “Lover’s Road,” while the ceremonial hall from the movie, set atop a mountain with spectacular views across the forest to the sea, has been kept intact (you’ll likely see Chinese couples dressed up to take wedding photos here).
The glass bridge—such bridges seemingly a mandatory addition to Chinese attractions these days—allows intrepid visitors to walk through the canopy with lush vegetation above and a sheer drop below. The trek is made even more frightening by simulated cracks in the glass floor. From the bridge, you will get spectacular views (as well as the chance for breathtaking selfies) across the rainforest to the beach at Yalong Bay and out to sea. There’s also a 4D cinema, dragon sculpture, butterfly sanctuary, and numerous eateries in the park—more than enough to keep a person occupied for an afternoon or more.
Up the coast from Yalong, another bay awaits—Hainan really is a province of stunning beaches. Haitang Bay, the most ambitious tourism development project on Hainan Island, has perhaps the highest concentration of opulent hotels in all of China, with resorts stretching along the coast as far as the eye can see. Unlike at Yalong Bay, the hawkers and beach activities are mostly absent here, meaning there’s less opportunity to go wild in the sea. But that also means the beach feels much more peaceful and secluded. In any case, the hotels here have taken it on themselves to keep guests entertained, with everything from in-built water parks to bike rides, wine tasting, and spa treatments—you need not worry about boredom.
This is where the most extravagant hotels around Sanya are located, with all the big brands you’d expect, Western and Chinese. Once you’re done indulging at the hotel buffet, or sunning yourself by the pool, perhaps some retail therapy is in order? Close to the beach is the world’s largest duty-free shopping mall, China Duty Free Mall (三亚国际免税城), with all manner of luxury brands available.
Together, Yalong Bay and Haitang Bay perhaps represent the best known and most desirable beach resorts in China. The whole region is focused on tourism, which means you’ll be treated to a slick and stress-free seaside holiday experience.
Cover image by Tuchong Stock
Excerpt taken from Hainan: Jade Cliffs to Ocean Paradise, TWOC’s new guide to China’s southernmost province. Get your copy today from our WeChat store!